Planning your language learning path – Where are you now?

06/13/2020 7:04  Pai Language Learning 

In this article, we will be beginning our exploration of the language learning process at its logical beginning – The very beginning of the planning stage.

The first step to planning out and analysing your language learning process is to get a good grasp of your current level. After all, how can you know how to get to where you want to go, if you don’t know where you are now?

We call this process of working out your current ability a “language audit”, as you are essentially checking your current abilities and experiences in the languages you know, and the languages you want to know.

There are lots of different ways of analysing your current ability in a language. We will be looking at a few of them here, as well as provide some suggestions on how accurate they are, before finally suggesting what we believe is the best way to do this.

What should I include in my language learning audit?

We suggest that you try to measure your ability in all the languages you have had any experience in learning, even if that experience is very limited, or that language is a language you have grown up with.

It’s important to know what you know, even in languages which you are not planning to learn further. Often, there is a certain amount of overlap between a language you know, and aren’t planning on learning, and your target language. An example of this would be an English speaker learning Welsh, where roughly 20% of Welsh vocabulary comes from either Old English, Middle English or Modern English. Another example would be for a Welsh learner wanting to learn Arabic – there’s a lot of similarity in grammatical constructions between the two languages, and by knowing about these similarities, you can leverage them to make your learning process more efficient, so it’s best to know!

It’s also important that you include languages that you have learnt a little of before, but do not plan on learning again as there may be some overlap. Even French lessons from school 20 years ago may make learning another language a little easier – you never know.

Finally, it’s important to include your target languages, the languages you want to study. You should include them even if you have not begun to study them, as this section will eventually inform your ‘to-do’ list for your language learning process.

Once you have this list, it’s onwards to the next step

Measuring your abilities

Measuring one’s abilities in languages is a notoriously difficult thing to pin down and quantify. There are many ways of doing this, but some are more accurate than others. Ultimately it is down to the user, but we feel we might have found a relatively accurate way of measuring your ability in a language. We will first discuss one of the most common methods:

Test based measurement

One of the most common ways of measuring one’s proficiency is to measure one’s ability to complete certain tasks. The most common (and in our opinion, most accurate) version of this is the CEFR Framework. This framework is commonly used in Europe to measure ability in European languages, but the same framework can be used to analyse ability in non-European languages too. There are 6 levels in total, based on the ability to talk about certain things, as below:

LevelDescription
A1 – Beginner– Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
– Can introduce themselves and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where they live, people they know and things they have.
– Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
A2 – Elementary– Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
– Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
– Can describe in simple terms aspects of their background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
B1 – Intermediate– Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
– Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
– Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
– Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
B2 – Upper Intermediate– Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.
– Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
– Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
C1 – Advanced– Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning.
– Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
– Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
– Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2 – Proficient– Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
– Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
– Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

The issues with this, and other similar systems is that there’s a lot of subjective measurement. What one person considers a complex text is often not what another person considers complex, and so on. That is not to deny this system has its use, but it is hard for people to accurately analyse their position.

Official tests

There are many official tests that are used to measure your ability in a language, such as IELTS for English, or HSK for Mandarin. These tend to follow feats based testing as above, though some also delineate specific vocabulary needed to be known, such as with the HSK test.

Pai Language Learning’s approach to measuring proficiency

Whilst we know that it is difficult to quantify one’s ability in a language, some sections can be quantified. It’s important to be rigorous in our measurements.

We can split ability into two sections – what you know, and how well you can use it. We can further break down what you know into 2 rough sentences, Vocabulary and Grammatical structures, which roughly lines up to knowing a word, and then how to use them.

At Pai Language Learning, our approach to vocabulary and grammar is quantified and order from the beginning. We can measure your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar structure by basing our content on the top 5000 statistically most common words, as well as 100-200 most common grammatical structures (both of which make up roughly 98% of the language). By monitoring your progress through these words and structures, we can measure your knowledge of a language, if not your ability to use it fluently. We can also use this system to precisely measure your current position, and most efficient way of improving it.

By combining this quantified knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, as well as assigning a quantified value to each of the abilities in the European framework as outlined above, we can give you a numeric representation of your ability, with 100% being someone who knows all the grammatical structures and vocabulary for the top 98% of a language, as well as absolute comfort with using this knowledge (keep in mind even fluent native speakers of a language may not get this result, but will definitely get very close to it), and 0% being someone with no knowledge or ability at all in a language.

Calculating your ability

The end number will be a result out of 100.

25 of those points are determined by the amount of vocabulary you know. If you have access to a frequency list, the point value can be calculated based on the percentage of the language each word you know makes up (we calculate this for you on our platform). Otherwise, you can just add one point for every 200 words you know.

25 of these points are determined by grammar. On our platform, we calculate the average frequency of different grammatical structures, and analyse it that way. If you do not have access to this (or we haven’t launched yet!) you can try to find as comprehensive a grammar description as possible, and then divide 25 by the total number of grammatical topics. That amount is the amount you should add for each structure you are familiar with.

50 of these points are allocated based on your ability to use the language. On our platform, we will have a more accurate way of testing this, but for now you can apply points based on your CEFR score as below. If you feel you don’t fall exactly into one or the other, you can estimate it:

A1 – Beginner5
A2 – Elementary10
B1 – Intermediate15
B2 – Upper Intermediate20
C1 – Advanced30
C2 – Proficient50

By adding these numbers together, you can work out roughly your level in your languages.

We have made a PDF template of the list for free here.

We recognise this combination is not completely accurate, but we feel it gives a far more accurate representation of one’s level compared to a completely non-numerical approach.

If you are not using our platform, you can do a similar analysis on your vocabulary level with any decent frequency list and grammar book (Routledge sell some good ones in book form here, but for the price of 6 months of our platform!) You just have to go through them and count what you know by hand and work out the total. For grammar, you have to break up the grammar into individual structures, count the total, and then count the amount you know.

Once you have analysed and thought through your current ability, and written it out clearly so you know what you need to work on most, you can begin planning your goals.

In our next article, we will be looking at the process of making language learning goals.

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